MSF 'Top Ten' under-reported humanitarian stories of 1999

New York, N.Y., December 15, 1999 - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today issued its second annual list of the Top Ten Under - Reported Humanitarian Stories of the year. The organization compiled the list to call attention to human crises that were largely ignored by the U.S. press during 1999.

"Victims of chronic conflicts are continually neglected by the media," said Joelle Tanguy, executive director of the U.S. office of MSF. "On our selective list alone, we cite more than two million people displaced within their own countries in the past year. These figures don't begin to convey the true horrors known by civilians facing violence, landmines, famine and epidemics caused by war."

While news of sudden crises - the forced expulsion of civilians from Kosovo, the earthquake in Turkey, and fighting in East Timor - was well reported, chronic conflicts and health crises received little attention. Decades-old wars in Angola, Sri Lanka and Colombia - as well as newer ones in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo - were among the ten major stories that failed to receive widespread media attention. A cholera epidemic in Mozambique, and the ongoing inaccessibility of drugs for people in the developing world, also made the list. MSF's U.S. office compiled the opinionated "Top Ten" list from events witnessed firsthand by its volunteers.

One MSF volunteer, Kathleen LeFevre, R.N., expressed frustration as she prepared to embark on an emergency mission in Malange, Angola, where a nutritional crisis was occurring.

"I've been trying to read up on Angola," she said. "But there's nothing in the paper." Angola's civil war was reignited in 1999, leaving tens of thousands of civilians trapped without adequate food resources.

MSF delivers medical aid to victims of wars, natural and man-made disasters, epidemics and social marginalization in more than 80 countries. In 1999, over 2,000 MSF volunteers brought aid not only to the world's "hot spots" but also to many places that fall outside the glare of the media's spotlight. A full account of the "Top Ten" crises follows.

MSF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Congo Republic: A forgotten war rages

Fighting between government forces and rebel militias in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo Republic, has generated massive atrocities against civilian populations, including executions, mutilations, rapes, and disappearances. More than 250,000 people - nearly 10 percent of the country's population - fled the capital of this Central African nation at the end of 1998 to seek refuge in tropical forests south of the city, only to find themselves caught in the middle of the fighting. Since May 1999, more than 200,000 people have returned to Brazzaville.

In May, MSF volunteers in Brazzaville reported an enormous medical and nutritional crisis: 60 percent of children under five suffered from severe or moderate malnutrition, new returnees faced a lack of hygiene and medical assistance, and many spoke of "epidemics of swollen feet" (a symptom of kwashiorkor, a very serious form of malnutrition). Many said that while in the forests they had been used as human shields, and women and children were systematically raped. From May to October 1999, more than 500 women and children receiving care at the Makelekele Hospital and at a transit center for the displaced reported having been raped on the road back to Brazzaville.

Afghanistan: War enters twentieth year, toll on civilians escalates

Afghanistan's health care system is in ruins as it faces its twentieth year of war. This nation - which has sent 2.6 million refugees - the world's largest refugee population - fleeing to Iran and Pakistan, suffers from a critical "brain drain," as most medical staff have departed. In 1999, several international organizations also left Afghanistan due to lack of funding, and U.N. sanctions established in October 1999 have restricted the ability of those remaining to move supplies into the country.

Afghanistan continues to have the world's poorest health statistics including the highest maternal mortality rate. Irrigation canals have been mined, making it impossible for people to grow crops. As a result, there is chronic malnutrition, and children's physical and mental development is stunted throughout the country. From June to August 1999, the Taliban movement undertook a large offensive on the Panshir Valley - one of the few remaining parts of the country not in its control. Although it did not succeed, 40,000 to 60,000 people were displaced in the process. The Taliban implemented a scorched-earth policy - razing crops, destroying irrigation systems, and burning houses as they withdrew.

Although the government has shown some moderation in its policies restricting women's access to health care, such access is still heavily constrained. Working throughout the country, MSF has provided female medical staff, as well as substantial primary care and nutritional aid.

Angola: Displacement, landmines, hunger threaten war victims

Since a breakdown of the 1994 "Lusaka Protocol" reignited Angola's 30-year civil war in December 1998, civilians have been facing new dangers. Rich in natural resources, Angola could be one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, but it has become one of the poorest. Displacement of 1.6 million people (more than 800,000 since December 1998), has put severe strains on public health, food, and water infrastructures.

In Kuito, where MSF runs a surgical program, the organization treated 354 cases of landmine wounds in the first six months of 1999 - a 27-fold increase from the same period last year. Humanitarian agencies face numerous challenges in trying to improve conditions: from landmine danger and direct threats, to outright denial of access. MSF was denied access to the besieged city of Malange, for example, from March to June 1999. When MSF returned, they discovered tens of thousands of internally displaced people without food, clothes,
medicines, or fuel. Fifteen percent suffered from severe malnutrition. MSF immediately implemented an emergency feeding program.

Colombia: Danger and threats plague medical staff and aid workers

Gaining access to health care becomes more difficult each day for the people of Colombia. Health services in the zones most affected by the armed conflict suffer from a lack of infrastructure and personnel. Few medical staff will work in the most dangerous areas where the need is greatest. Health posts and entire towns have been destroyed, and indigenous populations in the most remote regions are particularly cut off from health care. Public perception of the conflict in Colombia is that it is drug-related, affecting only those directly involved in trafficking. However, the problem is a much larger, undeclared civil war between the government and guerrilla forces, and most victims are civilians.

Hundreds of medical staff have been attacked, and, in many cases, killed. In addition, violence has spread to the cities, where slum dwellers face great danger. MSF programs provide medical and psychological assistance to young victims of violence in Agua Blanca, Cali's largest slum, as well as primary care in the slums of both Cali and Bogota. The organization also brings mobile health clinics to isolated communities in northern Colombia, where guerrilla warfare has waged for 30 years, and to the victims of the January 1999 earthquake in Armenia.

Mozambique: Cholera epidemic strikes

One of Africa's largest cholera epidemics of recent decades struck Mozambique in December 1998, and by mid-May 1999 had infected 62,263 people, with 2,063 deaths. The epidemic was particularly severe and difficult to manage, because, unlike epidemics that take place in confined areas where water resources can be quickly purified, it spread from village to village, over large distances. Almost all of Mozambique's provinces were affected - even tiny and remote villages - and the bacteria was particularly resilient.

In a nation that is still recovering from civil war, with very limited health resources, an epidemic like this creates a huge strain on the health system and interferes with the ability to address other diseases, like malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis. Working with the Ministry of Health, 90 MSF volunteers opened 180 cholera treatment centers, and brought more than 500,000 liters of rehydration solution to isolated parts of the country. The organization also made available five tons of drinking water, tanks, bladders, and pipes.

Sri Lanka: Civil war intensifies

The fighting between Sri Lanka's government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), has intensified since November 1999, creating havoc for civilians in the northern and eastern provinces. MSF volunteers have provided medical treatment for numerous civilians who have been victims of shelling and bombings, including the bombing of a church in Madhu that was serving as a safe haven for 3,000 civilians. By November 10, 60,000 residents of Vavuniya had heeded LTTE warnings to flee their homes in preparation for an assault.

But the government prevented those already living in displaced camps from leaving because they did not possess appropriate travel documents - in flagrant violation of international law. In Batticaloa district, where MSF has worked since 1987, the organization has been refused permission by the government to bring mobile clinics to populations completely without health care.

Medical teams in Mallavi and Puthukkuydiyiruppu, cut off from the south of the country, fear imminent supply shortages. Transporting medical supplies and staff to the northern and eastern part of the country has been an ongoing challenge throughout this 16-year civil war.

Burundi: War and displacement leave civilians without health care

A humanitarian crisis has prevailed in Burundi since a civil war broke out following the 1993 assassination of the elected president. About one-sixth of the population - or 800,000 people - have been either voluntarily or forcibly displaced by the government in its effort to control rebel activities. One immediate effect of removing people from their farmland has been to further impoverish a country that has never been rich. Tensions increased last summer with the return of Burundian rebels who had fought in neighboring Democractic Republic of Congo.

Fearing rebel attacks, authorities moved approximately 300,000 people living in the province of Bujumbura Rural into 50 regroupment camps. Conditions in these camps are dire, and on November 18, 1999, MSF announced that it was suspending its operations in the camps to draw attention to this man - made disaster.

Only 19 of the sites had been accessible to aid agencies for security reasons, and limits on movement did not permit effective assistance and prevention of epidemics and malnutrition. In other parts of the country, such as Karusi, in the center of the country, MSF has seen sharp increases in the number of children receiving emergency feeding in its therapeutic feeding centers.

Somalia: Civilians face the world's neglect

For nearly a decade, the people of Somalia have lived in a state of emergency due to civil war, and health care is currently at the lowest levels since 1991. There are constant epidemics and food shortages due to the persistent destruction of property, displacement, drought, and flooding. A drought has killed a large portion of the country's livestock, and an animal hemorrhagic fever outbreak in 1998 caused greater economic collapse.

Somalia's infant and maternal mortality rates are ranked in the top ten percent worldwide. Cholera is endemic and affects thousands of people each year, particularly in urban areas in the center and south of the country. In Galkayo, MSF is currently fighting cholera and meningitis epidemics, and the collapse of immunization has also led to measles outbreaks. Although MSF and other international agencies provide medical services and epidemiological monitoring throughout the country, the unstable situation makes lasting improvements unlikely.

Amid such desperate circumstances, the commitment of the international community is decreasing. Donor funds for relief assistance are in short supply, and only a handful of relief agencies are working in southern and central Somalia, the most affected regions.